Head Start services outside of city cut

ALBANY COUNTY — Head Start programs at Berne-Knox-Westerlo and three other areas outside of Albany could lose funds next year for pre-school students in low-income families. The cuts are tied to a grant renewal affected by sequestration.

A council of parent representatives for the Albany Community Action Partnership voted for a proposal to cut its Head Start funding in Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Ravena, Cohoes, and Watervliet. ACAP has administered the federal grant money since 1966.

The ACAP Head Start program was reduced by about 77 slots down from nearly 500, in order to absorb the $232,000 taken from a $4.4 million grant for Albany County, said ACAP’s executive director, Kathleen Cloutier.

Head Start provides two meals a day, special-education services, parenting skills training, and medical and dental services for 3- and 4-year-olds and their low-income families. At BKW and other districts, Head Start programs are combined with Universal Pre-K classes that are not income-based and are funded separately through the State Education Department.

Cloutier said the decision to cut enrollment instead of hours was based on need and was suggested by the federal Office of Head Start. The highest numbers of children on waiting lists and living in poverty are near inner-city locations, she said.

 

“Unfortunately, in the rural communities, they’re always battling the numbers. The poverty number isn’t as high as it was in Colonie,” said Cloutier, comparing that suburban town to the rural Helderberg Hilltowns.

According to a 2012 Community Needs Assessment by the Siena Research Institute, 8,750 children make up a quarter of Albany County residents living in poverty. Children are eligible for ACAP Head Start if they are homeless, receiving federal assistance money, in foster care, or with families at or below the federal poverty level.

Cloutier said some of the affected classrooms would continue offering Universal Pre-Kindergarten education. In total, she said, 28 possible slots for pre-school will be gone.

In Ravena, she said, child-care funds from the county and parent fees might be used to retain Head Start staff; and Cohoes has requested support from the school district.

For the 2013-14 year, BKW’s Universal Pre-K grant is $67,761, obtained through the State Education Department. BKW’s business official, David Hodgkinson, said the share of the grant towards ACAP Head Start is more than $30,000.

“My intent to have the same program in place for the fall,” said BKW Superintendent Paul Dorward yesterday. BKW has 13 students in each of its two half-day classrooms, though not all of them receive Head Start services.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Barack Obama proposed working with states to ensure universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds; this was later clarified by the White House: Pre-K would be guaranteed for 4-year-olds in families that earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less.

Long history

Patricia Miller, a long-time kindergarten teacher at BKW, retiring this year, started Head Start in the Hilltowns with a family development worker and another teacher in 1980. In 1981, Miller began teaching at BKW, where she has been for 33 years. She taught kindergarten for 13 years and has taught all grades through sixth grade.

The two biggest obstacles to starting a Hilltown Head Start program, she said, were finding eligible families and finding a space for monthly visits. The school was too crowded in 1980, she said.

She said programs like Head Start give children familiarity with school buildings, routine, and new adults; the students develop language and social skills.

“A lot of our Head Start families, because of the lack of resources they have, don’t put those experiences in those kids’ lives,” said Miller.

Miller said Head Start also allows children access to special services in addition to regular education.

“We know the most amount of learning and growth in children is in their early years,” said Miller. “Some of those children that are just lagging behind, that have a deficiency in those areas, it would have been good to catch them at 2-and-a-half years old, but at least we’re catching them at 4-and–a-half years old.”

According to the Office of Head Start grantee profile, Albany County has 469 funded slots, but is overenrolled at 473. Most of them are in the city of Albany.

Sites in Albany, Ravena, Watervliet, and Cohoes use rented space, while the other sites use donated space, according to the profile.

The Office of Head Start asked for the reductions, citing $85 billion large-scale, automatic cuts to the federal budget known as sequestration.

Spending for half of the school year would be reduced, starting in September. If funds for next year aren’t restored, Cloutier said, some programs could still be returned because the reduction would be spread over a full school year.

Cloutier said the ACAP grant proposal has been “preliminarily accepted.”

A Head Start program has to compete for the grant if any deficiencies are identified. Cloutier said that ACAP reported last year that one of its staff members left a child unattended for a few minutes.

Elizabeth Thomas, who lives in Berne, said she and other parent representatives on the ACAP policy council who voted against the proposal on May 9 asked for more information. She said council members do not see the budget for each site, and numbers are discussed but “never really written down.”

“Our site always has the highest attendance rating. Our attendance rating is about 95 percent. Albany, inner city, was around 70 percent. We have very low incident reports,” said Thomas, who also wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.

She suggested classrooms could have been combined, the budget cut spread over more locations, and rent-free space, like at BKW, found within other schools. “They could have scaled back or cut transportation for any of them,” said Thomas.

The cost of all transportation for Head Start would be about the same as the reduction, Cloutier said, and leases are being negotiated for savings. Salaries, she said, are where the significant savings is coming from.

“If a parent is experiencing an issue or concerns for child health, nutrition, or safety, the parent would work with a teacher, who would make a referral to one of ACAP’s service navigators and act as case manager,” said Cloutier of the future classrooms lacking the Head Start program.

Thomas has a daughter in the BKW Head Start program this year and has two other children, twins, now in first grade, who had been enrolled. She said the program supports children in learning the routine of school.

“We have a parent committee where all the parents are welcome to meet. We decide different field trips or programs,” said Thomas. “We do our own fund-raising to go on field trips.”

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